Sunday Conversation: Kevin Engellant’s basketball career created long-lasting memories, friendships

GREAT FALLS — Kevin Engellant’s basketball career has spanned four decades and a handful of different positions.

He started as a standout player at Geraldine High School, where he put his name all over the Montana High School Association record books in the 1980s. Engellant continued his career at Montana Western (then Western Montana College) and became a Hall of Fame player for the Bulldogs, scoring 1,423 career points and grabbing 550 career rebounds.

After graduation, Engellant got into coaching. He started at the high school level as an assistant and eventually became the head coach of the girls team at Dillon. He led the Beavers to the 1995 Class A state championship and then left for the college ranks, taking over the women’s program at Western. Engellant coached the Bulldogs for 13 seasons, advancing to the NAIA tournament eight times.

Engellant stepped down in 2009 and joined the Montana Officials Association. He’s spent the past 10 seasons officiating high school basketball games in Montana and was recently named the girls basketball official of the year.

Engellant, who teaches in the business and technology department at Western, recently sat down with MTN Sports to reflect on the various aspects of his basketball career for this week’s Sunday Conversation.

MTN Sports: Since we’re into postseason basketball, kind of that fun time of year for Montana fans, when did your realization that you had a passion for hoops start?

Kevin Engellant: “Boy, really young age. I don’t know exactly how old I was, but basketball obviously has meant a lot to me and has been a huge part of my life. And, so, I would say at a very young age developed a passion for basketball, and obviously looking back, my high school playing days had a lot of fond memories there, and college playing days playing at Montana Western and starting my coaching career at Beaverhead County High School. Coached there for a few years and then obviously the Montana Western women’s coach. So, yeah, a lot of fond memories and relationships formed over the years.”

MTN Sports: I have this imagination of young Kevin, young Daren just beating up on one another in the house, the hoop hooked up on the closet door. Is any of that accurate? Broken lamps?

Engellant: “There’s actually an old Amway soap dispenser that we had in our utility room, and we had some battles as kids in our utility room, our pantry area. And obviously outside our house we had some battles, late at night, lights on, Mom and Dad yelling at us that it’s time to go to bed. But, yeah, a lot of good battles, a lot of fond memories growing up as a kid playing basketball.”

MTN Sports: Looking back, how much did that little competitive rivalry between brothers push each of you into the players you became?

Engellant: “Yeah, I think, obviously Daren was a tremendous player in high school and college. As we were growing up, I was always a couple years older, a little bigger and stronger. But the tables turned rather quickly when he got into college and obviously gained some weight, gained some strength. I remember when he would come back from college and I would come back and we would have some battles, it really made me a better player, because I had to learn, at 6-5 and my height to get my shot off over a 6-10 shot blocker. Daren obviously made me a better player, and I think we pushed each other, and that’s what made it really special.”

MTN Sports: How difficult was it watching in the stands as he’s playing that Hinsdale team in the championship?

Engellant: “Yeah, that was quite a game. Actually that weekend, I was in one of my best friend’s wedding, Jeff Elliot, and he was getting married down in Wyoming, and we watched Daren play at the Metra in the first round and continued on, because I believe Jeff was going to get married on Saturday, and the weather was just terrible. The wedding ended up getting postponed a day, so we were in Wyoming, not quite where Jeff was getting married, and obviously Geraldine won the semifinal game. And I was traveling with Mark Durham and some other members of the wedding party, and my brother now was playing the state championship. I asked Jeff, I said, ‘Can I borrow your car to run back to Billings?’ So I drove back to Billings, and the roads weren’t too bad coming to Billings. But then obviously watching a triple-overtime game, a tough loss to swallow, and then I had to get up the next morning — I didn’t sleep at all — and drive. I remember leaving Billings at, like, 5 in the morning, and it was emergency travel only, and I’m thinking, ‘I just hope that these roads get better and I end up making it.’ I still remember that weekend very vividly.”

MTN Sports: Shows how much hoops is a passion, thinking priority in the family. Montana Western, when you think back to the playing days there, what kind of stands out the most?

Engellant: “The ’88-89 team that went to Kansas City and knocked off the No. 1 team in the nation, Grand Canyon. Just this last summer we had a reunion and got together with a lot of the guys, and obviously a lot of friendships and memories from that team. Just a real special group that obviously got along really well of the court, and so it was so much just to sit around and talk about the stories and reminisce about the good, old days. It was just a great weekend for all of us, so I think that’s obviously the highlight. We had some really good teams and came up short my senior year one game away from going to the national tournament, but that year and that team and going to Kansas City for the first time in a long time for a Western team and then playing the No. 1 team and playing really well. We all had flat tops. We made a pact that if we went to Kansas City we were going to shave our heads was the original plan, and then that plan got altered a little bit. Great guys, and obviously Mark Durham was our assistant coach and John Sullivan was my roommate and one of my good friends today in Jeff Elliot and Shawn Smith and Dave Cornelia and Brian Henderson, just a lot of good guys, and we’re still, really, a tight-knit group, even today.”

MTN Sports: Did you know coaching, that you wanted it to be in your future at that time? Or when did it kind of come about?

Engellant: “When I got into college, obviously, worked some basketball camps and coached my brother’s team in the summer a little bit. I wasn’t really sure, as a college student, at first what I wanted to do, if I wanted to go into business, so I got a business administration degree, but I also got a business ed and math degree. As my college career kind of got toward the end, I was like, ‘You know, I think I might want to try this coaching and teaching.’ I was fortunate to get a job at Beaverhead County High School after I graduated. I student-taught there that spring and got to stay in Dillon, which, obviously, I love Dillon. So right out of the bat I was coaching girls basketball, assistant coach for Rick Danelson, who I ran into (at the State C girls basketball tournament). He was the head coach, and we won a state championship in Bozeman that first year, so that was quite a way to start my coaching career to win a state championship helping out that first season. Then Craig Finberg was the boys coach and I was the assistant boys coach with Craig Finberg for five years. So I learned a lot those first few years learning and watching those two, so a lot of my coaching philosophies and what I brought really started with those two, with Rick Danelson and Craig Finberg.”

MTN Sports: Then what was it like coaching at the university for which you had played at, going over to Western?

Engellant: “When the coaching job became available, actually the men’s job opened up first, and Mark Durham and I were the two finalists, and Mark had some experience coaching college, and he was the right guy for the job, also a Western grad. Then a few weeks later the Western women’s job opened up, and I loved the high school, I loved teaching, I loved coaching, but I thought this is a great opportunity to go back to my alma mater and give college coaching a try, so I jumped on it and had a great 13-year run there. It was a lot of fun, a lot of good teams, a lot of great players I was able to coach.”

MTN Sports: So then when did this, this officiating and refereeing, when did that all start to come into play?

Engellant: “The last couple years at Western I was kind of telling my wife — Roxanne and I met in 2001, got married in 2003, and so she moved to Dillon with the kids. And then we had our son, Kyler, so I was busy coaching. I had kind of been thinking about for a year or two, and my wife was like, ‘Are you sure you’re ready to step down from coaching?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I think I want to teach full-time.’ And refereeing, I had done a little bit here and there at tournaments at camps, and I always, I think being on the coaching side of it, it was something that I really enjoyed and thought I could, with a lot of work, could be relatively good at. So, I stepped down from coaching in ’09, and I was like, ‘I’m going to jump into refereeing.’ This is now my 10th year refereeing basketball.”

MTN Sports: If I had to put you on the spot for the most memorable game, whether it be a state championship game or just regular-season, quadruple-overtime, whatever, what’s that one game that you’ll always remember so far in these 10 years officiating?

Engellant: “Boy, that’s a tough question, because the tournaments I really enjoy — I mean, coming to work these tournaments and obviously the passion for the fans, the players and the coaches, and getting to meet the other referees from around the state. My first year as refereeing tournaments, I remember I refereed the district championship, the divisional championship and the state championship in Missoula. First tournament and being able to ref a state championship, and that was a few years ago when Gardiner won. So, that would probably be it. But a lot of highlights and a lot of fond memories and relationships that I’ve developed over these 10 years of officiating.”

MTN Sports: Official of the year for girls basketball. How do they tell you about something like that, first of all? And what was kind of your reaction?

Engellant: “Well, I was obviously very humbled and very surprised. I had actually got a Facebook message notification from Jonkar (Arceniega), who’s also an official from the Missoula pool, and he had posted it. So I immediately text him and say, ‘Where did you see this?’ He said, ‘Well, the official word that came out from the MHSA newsletter.’ And I had actually gotten the email, I just was in class and hadn’t had a chance to read it. I was like, ‘Really?’ So I opened it up and saw my name as official of the year, so I was like, ‘Wow, that’s quite an honor.’ Like I said, there’s a lot of great officials in the state, a lot who I’ve learned a lot from over the years. So very humbling and was definitely caught by surprise by that.”

MTN Sports: As much as we all know you for basketball playing, coaching and now officiating, we know you more because you’re famous for winning ESPN’s Streak for the Cash. Who were you picking? What were you doing that worked so well for you to win that, because there was a lot of us trying?

Engellant: (Laughs) “Yeah, that was back in 2013, I believe, so it was a little over five years ago. It was a memorable month, for sure, November. I remember I’ve had a lot of stress and excitement in my coaching and playing career, but that month of making those picks and the way it shook down and everything with the triple-overtime game, I think I lost 10 or 15 pounds and had a hard time sleeping. When it was all over, still looking back on it, it’s hard to believe. My wife and I talk about it all the time, ‘Do you really believe that I picked 34 in a row?’ Maybe some skill, but a lot of luck obviously has to go into that.”

MTN Sports: How much second-guessing or maybe how much going back and changing before the start of those games did you do?

Engellant: “Not much. I did some research, I’d look at the games, and the good thing is, once I took the lead, everybody was kind of trying to catch me, and a lot of people thought I was foolish for continuing to make picks when I was in the lead. I was like, ‘You know, I didn’t get to where I was by just being tentative and being scared.’ So I’d look at the games and if there was a pick that I liked, I would go with it. I didn’t do much of that once I made the pick. I just let it ride and hopefully lived to see another day. Obviously at the very end and I picked and there were several people chasing me, and the game that I lost on there was four or five other people that also lost on that game, so it wasn’t a bad thing. And that left one person who was still within reach, and then he picked Alabama to beat Drexel, and Drexel won in triple overtime.”

MTN Sports: Playing off that, I think we should take you to Las Vegas for March Madness, if that’s all right.

Engellant: “I’ve been there. Actually, after I won that, I took some of my friends. I said, ‘OK, this is pretty cool that I won this.’ I had never been to Vegas for March Madness, so I took my brother and Jeff Elliot and Mark Durham and Scott Ferguson and we went and experienced March Madness in Vegas, so if you want to go …”

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